President Biden’s FAA Nominee Bows Out, after Senators Waver

President Joe Biden’s nominee to lead the Federal Aviation Administration withdrew his nomination Saturday evening, amid concerns from senators in both parties over his relative lack of aviation experience and background and nine months in limbo. 

Department of Transportation (DOT) Secretary Pete Buttigieg tweeted late on Saturday that Phil Washington, CEO of Denver International Airport, withdrew his nomination for the position. 

“The FAA needs a confirmed Administrator, and Phil Washington’s transportation & military experience made him an excellent nominee,” tweeted Buttigieg. “The partisan attacks and procedural obstruction he has faced and undeserved, but I respect his decision to withdraw and am grateful for his service.”

The FAA has been operating without a confirmed administrator for around a year, and Washington’s exit likely means it will be months longer until the White House choosed another candidate who must then go through the Senate vetting and then voting process. In the meantime, the nation’s aviation system is showing signs of strain amidst a worrying increase in near-collisions on runways.

Washington faced a constant stream of criticism, mostly from the GOP, because his only experience in aviation is the now almost two-year stint as head of the Denver airport. Before that, he had a background leading transit agencies after a career in the Army. 

Phil Washington’s nomination was also complicated by his role in a politically tinged corruption probe out of Los Angeles County, which was related to his time in Los Angeles’ transit agency. The probe, which focused primarily on County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, and was started by former Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva, political rival of Kuehl. The attorney general of California eventually halted the probe. 

The decision to withdraw came days after the Senate Commerce Committee, which was vetting his nomination, postponed the vote to advance Washington to the Senate floor. Two senators who caucus with the Democrats on the panel, Jon Tester of Montana and Kyrsten Sinema have been undecided on his nomination. The committee only had a one-vote majority. 

White House blames withdrawal on GOP attacks

A White House official blamed Washington’s withdrawal on an “onslaught of unfounded Republican attacks” that “irresponsibly delayed this process, threatened unnecessary procedural hurdles, and ultimately have led him to withdraw his nomination,” and defended his qualifications. The official maintained the administration will quickly move to nominate another candidate. 

GOP Senator Ted Cruz of Texas led the opposition to Washington, and recently insisted that he would need a waiver from Congress to serve in the position because the FAA’s administrator must be a civilian by law. Democrats insisted that the statute did not apply to Washington. 

In a statement, Senator Cruz said, “this wasn’t the time for an administrator who needed on-the-job training.”

“The Biden administration must now quickly name someone to head the FAA who has an extensive aviation background, can earn widespread bipartisan support in the Senate, and will keep the flying public safe,” said Cruz. 

Washington’s withdrawal came two days after Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg voiced public support for the nomination, and vowed to “persuade anyone who needs persuading” after committee delayed the vote. 

Democrat Senate Commerce Committee Chair Maria Cantwell said Washington “has the qualifications and experience to lead the FAA.”

“The FAA requires strong and independent leadership from someone who will focus on safety,” said Cantwell in a statement. “Republicans chose to drum up falsehoods rather than give the flying public and the aviation industry the leadership needed now.”

Billy Nolen, acting FAA Administrator, will continue to lead the agency until the Senate confirms a permanent leader. Senator Cruz argued that Nolen could swiftly be confirmed to the top job, however, Nolen had publicly voiced his support for Washington’s nomination.